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Monday, December 5, 2011

The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan ( XXII )

The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan


The Mahamuni Sculptures

If we travel from Akyab, the capital of the Arakan State, north wards by boat along the Kaladan River, we reach Kyauktaw town. The town is about 60 miles up the river from Akyab and is situated on the left bank of the river. See Picture. Go

On the right bank, opposite Kyauktaw town is the famous Selargiri Hill. According to tradition, Gautama Buddha journeyed to Arakan and landed on this hill first. At present, there is a standing Buddha image on the top of the hill pointing out to his disciples the various places in which his former lives had been passed. There is also one Buddha image in a reclining posture (parinirvana scene) and two caityas (one old type and the other new type). The entire view of the hill with these images and caityas is very scenic. This hill commanded a view of the rice plains towards Dhanyawadi which is situated about 5 miles east of the hill. See Chapter III for description of the city of Dhanyawadi.

Sirigutta hill, on which the Mahamuni shrine was built, lies on the northeast corner of the site once occupied by the ancient city of Dhanyawadi, whose walls are still traceable at present. See Picture. Go, the aerial photo map in Chapter III. The Mahamuni precincts occupied the whole hill which is leveled into three flat surfaces. These surfaces are surrounded with square-cut blocks of granular sandstone forming three enclosures. The lowest enclosure, which has an area of 500’ x 580’, is the base where there is a reservoir, known as Candasuriya reservoir, fed by a perennial spring The second enclosure is thirty feet up and has an area of 220’ x 240’. The third enclosure is again thirty feet up enclosing the leveled summit on which is built the shrine. It has an area of 116’ x 155’. There are a number of sculptures standing on these platforms. At the four cardinal points of the lowest enclosure are gates from which covered step-ways led to the shrine. See Picture. Go It is the oldest and most revered Buddhist site in Arakan.

In the central chamber of this shrine is the throne on which the Mahamuni image was once placed. The image was removed in 1784 to Mandalay. According to tradition, as well as the palmleaf manuscript Sappadanapakarana, Lord Buddha, while sojourning in Dhanyawadi, consented to the request of the king Candasuriya to leave an image of Him. The king collected the necessary metals and with the help of Sakra and Visvakarman made the image which was said to be exactly like the Blessed One. The Blessed One breathed upon the Image to impart life to the Image. King Candasuriya placed the Image on a throne in the shrine which he built on top of the Sirigutta hill. The image faced west where lay the places of the Four Principal Incidents of the Master’s life.

The entire religious history of Buddhistic Arakan centres around this “younger brother” of Gautama. The Image was believed by the people to be the original resemblance of Gautama taken from life and was very highly venerated. Pilgrims have for centuries come from various Buddhist countries to pay their devotions at the foot of the Image.

According to Arakanese historical records the shrine was destroyed by fire or by pilferage on many occasions throughout the centuries and was again and again rebuilt by pious kings of these centuries.

Of the original shrine, nothing remains except the three walls surrounding the three flat surfaces of the Sirigutta hill made of square cut blocks of granular sandstone, a reservoir at the southeast corner of the first enclosure, a number of stone sculptures standing along the terraces, and a few original architectural fragments.

The stone sculptures are the earliest group of specimen of the Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan so far found. They consist of single images, dials and triads. They are all made out of the same type of fine -grained red sandstones and the sculptures are rather similar in design and dresses. The sizes of the slabs having single images are almost the same whereas the slabs having dials and triads are a little smaller.

Fortunately for us, there are some writings on one of the single images out of which two lines are still legible. See Picture. Go We can read Senapati Panada very clearly and therefore this image is the image of the Yaksa General Panada. Panada was one of the 28 Yaksa generals. Studying palaeographically, we can assign the writing to the 4th or 5th century A.D. This gives us the age of the group of these stone sculptures.

Unfortunately, one of the hands of most of the images are broken. In some cases both the hands are broken. The headdresses are a braised due to weathering and lapse of time. Almost all of them have the attributes of royalty such as ornate headdresses: sometimes with crown, earrings, necklets, armlets, bracelets, anklets and a waist band tied in different fashions.

The slabs consist of raised unornamented ledges about one foot high on which the images are seated. The back slabs are mostly plain and the tops are usually rounded. In some cases there are nimbuses behind the head, elliptical or otherwise in shape. Some of the slabs have decorations in the form of rows of coils behind the shoulders.

The images have no overt sexual characteristics. The sculptor or sculptors executed a balanced composition of the figures which have smooth curves of the flesh. The artists seem to be aiming at the reproduction of sublime beauty in figures by an attenuation of the limbs and waists. The faces are oblong and have round smooth chins. Most of them are seated with their knees raised in different fashions and the postures of one of the hands can be made out to be either in Abhaya or Varada mudras. The other hand may be resting on the knee or holding a sword.

To interpret these images, we must note that the Mahamuni Shrine was built to house the exact replica of Sakyamuni, the Buddha. The Arakanese called this image in adoration as Mahamuni. So, the Greatest will be the Image of Buddha in this shrine. Any other image found around the shrine cannot be superior in status to this Buddha Image. One should not interpret the images found here as the images belonging to the Buddhist Pantheon mentioned in many advanced Mahayana Suttras devoted to meditation and perception of the deities, such as Sadhanamala, Nispannayogacali, etc. According to these Suttras, there exist Dhyani Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Mortal Buddhas and Saktis. In order to identify our sculptures with these gods and goddesses one has to search for attributes held in hands and the images of Dhyani Buddha on the headdresses. When the hands are broken and the headdresses a braised, one can speculate in many ways as one likes. It is only natural that the prejalicial mind will draw conclusions according to what one likes to.

In order to interpret these broken and braised images found in the shrine, one should first of all determine what stage the Buddhism has reached in Arakan at the period of making of these images. As we know the approximate date of making of these imges as the 4th or the 5th century A.D., the Buddhism prevailing at that time cannot be advanced Mahayana. Please refer to the last two chapters. So they should not be associated with the Buddhist Pantheon mentioned in the advanced Mahayana Suttras. What do these images represent then? We have known that all beings, men, Nats (celestial devas), Brahmas and creatures of the nether world worshipped Buddha and listened to Buddha’s preachings. According to Buddhist Iconographical Texts, there are eight classes of beings who listened to Sakyamini’s preshing. They are Devas, Yaksas, Gandharvas, Asuras, Garudas, Kinnaras, Mahoragas and Nagas. I am strongly convinced that the Mahamuni sculptures represent these figures.

Among the sculptures of the Mathura School of Art there are numerous Buddha and Bodhisattva images together with those of Kubera, the Yaksas and Nagas. Images of Tantric flavour are not met with here, not even the images of Avalokitesvara, Manjusri are to be found in this school. This school extended to the early Gupta period.

The situations in Arakan School of Art during the period of making the Mahamuni sculptures are the same as that of Mathura School. We found here Naga kings, Yaksas, Kinnaras, Asura diads, deva triads and numerous royal figures whom may also be taken as Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattva concept is already in existence ever since very early times of Buddhism. The Bodhisattvas here, however, should not be mixed up with the Bodhisattvas mentioned in advanced Mahayana Suttras after the advent of the doctrine of Three Bodies and the theory of Five Dhyani Buddhas.

Mahoraga or Naga (Serpent King)

See Picture. Go There can be no doubt about this figure. The outspread hood of a cobra with five heads rises above the head. The figure wears a three-pointed crown enclosing a two coiled jata with a lotus bud-like top. The figure sits with left knee raised with the foot drawn back to the centre and pointing to the side. The right leg is folded under. The right hand is in Abhaya mudra, i.e., the palm turned towards the front with fingers raised upwards. The left hand falls on the side of the raised left knee. The figure wears a pair of large circular earrings, plain and wide necklaces, plain Brahmanical cords, a stiff belt, tied at the front with the buckle in the form of a horse shoe and anklets.

Nagi (Female Naga)

See Picture. Go The outspread hood of a cobra with nine heads rises above the head. The face is shown frontally while the torso bends to the right. The arms are broken and the legs in kneeling position are turned towards the right. The figure is sitting in a feminine way.

The Yaksa General Panada

See Picture. Go The figure is a small one with a high back slab. There is a trefoil nimbus behind the head. On top of the nimbus is a flag. The headdress does not contain a crown. As usual with all the figures, the figure wears large circular earrings. Both hands are broken and the body is also badly damaged. The figure sits with left knee raised with the foot drawn back to the centre and pointing to the side and the right leg folded under. The left hand may have held a sword. On the upper portion of the stone behind the figure are traces of 12 lines of an inscription which contains only a few legible letters. The lines must have continued to the base. Only the two lowest lines are legible now. Fortunately, the lines contain the name of the figure, Senapati Panada. See Picture. Go As mentioned before, we can date the sculpture paleographically to either the 4th or 5th century A.D. Panada, as mentioned in Suttras of the Digha Nikaya, was one of the 28 Yaksa Generals led by Kubera.

Other Yaksa Generals

See Picture. Go The figure is similar to that of Panada, but is better preserved. There is a trefoil nimbus at the back of the head on top of which is a flag. The figure sits with the left knee raised with the foot pointing to the side. The right leg is folded. The headdress does not have a crown and as usual wears large circular earrings. There is no necklace but two straps pass over his shoulders twist over the chest and behind the arms. There is a girdle around his hips. The right hand is broken now, but it may once be in varada mudra. The left hand is moved sideways behind the raised right knee and is holding a sword.

There may be more images belonging to the group of Yaksa generals.

The Gandharva (The Deva Musician)

See Picture. Go The headdress has no crown but consists of four narrow coils on top of which is a bulbous bun. There is a flag above and two spikes can be seen to protrude from either side of the headdress. The figure wears, as usual, large circular earrings, plain wide necklaces, armbands, a short tunic and a belt. He sits with his right knee raised with the foot pointing to the side and the left leg folded with knee and toes touching the ground. The right hand is bent with elbow on the right knee and is holding a sword broken at the top. The left hand is placed flat on the left thigh. Small wing like decorations sprout from behind the shoulders. At the back of the figure is a raredos rounded at the top whose height is about the eye level.


See Picture. Go The head dressed consist of five pointed crowns enclosing three or four coiled jata with bud-like tops of different shapes. From the sides of the headdresses issue flower like projections and from these fly tripartite feather-like objects curved outwards at the ends. Each figure has large circular earrings inserted in the lobe. The neck has three graceful folds and the necklaces are plain and wide. All have upper arm bands with a single fleuron projections, bracelets and armlets. A belt is always worn around the waist and is tied in front in various fashions. A belt is sometimes discernable around the hips. All figures, except one, sit with the right knee raised, foot pointing forward, and the left leg folded under. The right hands fall freely on the side of the raised right knees. The left hands are broken from the elbow. The left hands most probably may be either in abhaya or varada mudras. (To compare see Naga image). The exceptional one has left knee raised with the left hand on the side of the raised knee. The right hand may be in abhaya mudra.

The group is distinguished by round projections decorated with coil-like rows behind the shoulders. These projections seem to represent the wings of the Kinnaras. The feather-like tripartite objects issued from the sides of the headdresses and the wing-like projections behind the shoulders leads to the interpretation of this group of images as personified Kinnaras. Or the wing-like projections represent the blazing glory which emanates from the body of Bodhisattvas? In this case, the group may be identified as Bodhisattvas. See Picture. Go

We must note that Garudas also have wings.

The Lokapalas

See Picture. Go The headdresses are similar to the images of Kinnaras but they contain four coils instead of three. The ornaments and the sitting postures are also the same. The right hands are in varada mudras. That is, the hands are folded with the palms spread outwards with the fingers pointing down. The left hands hold swords with their buds on the left knees. There are elliptical nimbuses behind the heads.

The Diads

See Picture. Go There are two diads. One of them had been modified by chiseling out of the original. The other is intact. Here again, the ornaments and dresses are the same. The only difference is in the headdress. The headdress consists of no crown and, like that of Naga, has two coils only and topped with a bud-shaped protrusion Two straight horns come out from the left and right sides of the top coil and two curved horns from the sides just below the lower coil. Two straight horns can also be discerned below the curved horns. The right image has both hands broken from the elbows, whereas the left image has the right hand broken from the elbow. The left hand in this case is placed on the leg. Both of them are sitting with their legs folded but not crossed. The left leg is in front of the right. There is a nimbus at the back of the head. By carefully studying the headdress, one can speculate that the images belong to a different type of celestial being. Hence I want to interpret these images as images of Asuras.


See Picture. Go All the three figures have the same type of headdresses. They are more complicated than the headdresses of the other images and crowns cannot be discerned. There are elliptical nimbuses behind their heads. They wear the same type of ornaments as other Mahamuni images. All of them are seated with their legs folded and the left legs are slightly raised. The central image has his right arm raised in front of the body and left hand rests on the left leg. The hands of the side figures are broken from their elbows. The inner hands of these images appear to hold long stalk like objects, wider at the top. Are these spears or some sort of musical instruments? The outer hands are also raised in front. They can either be Devas or Gandharvas (Deva musicians) and definitely not Dhyani Buddha sitting together with two Bodhisattvas at his sides, since they cannot have been developed in this region at this period even if one wished to.

In addition to the above sculptures, there are two more types left. One is an unfinished standing dvarapala (See Picture. Go) and the other, a squatting figure with the upper portion of the body together with the head lost. See Picture. Go

These are the strange sculptures of Mahamuni. They have been interpreted as Hindu deities by many people. Some are attempting to interpret these as deities of the Buddhist Pantheon of the advanced Mahayana Buddhism. But after studying carefully the stage of Buddhism reached in Arakan in its evolution during the period of making these sculptures , one can conclude that they are the personified images of the Devas, Yaksas, Gandharvas, Asuras, Garudas, Kinnaras, Mahoragas and Nagas, who used to listen to Buddha’s preachings. They can be distinguished only from their headdresses and the decorations behind the head and the shoulders as all other ornaments worn are almost the same.

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